A couple weeks ago, I took a look at how far the Wizards are from contending. Watching the Miami Heat vanquish the Milwaukee Bucks and the rest of the playoffs got me wondering: what happens if John Wall returns at the peak of his powers?
Leaving aside whether that’s likely or not, let’s just assume Wall can turn back time to 2016-17 when he posted career highs in points, assists, steals and offensive efficiency (per 100 team possessions, 31.4 points, 14.4 assists, 2.7 steals, and an offensive rating of 111 — 2.2 points better than league average). That season earned Wall his fourth of five All-Star game appearances and third team All-NBA honors. His score in my Player Production Average metric: 165.
In PPA, 100 is average and higher is better. That season, I had Wall rated as the NBA’s sixth best guard. If he’d posted a 165 this season, he would have made third team All-NBA on my hypothetical ballot.
To figure out what impact he would would have made for this year’s Wizards, I dusted off the model I use for my preseason forecasts. I entered the minutes and PPA scores for the 2019-20 Wizards and the model spit out its retro-cast for the team: 24.9 wins. They finished the season with a 25-47 record.
The next step was to decide how many minutes Wall would play. To start, I matched his minutes to Bradley Beal’s. That’s 2,053 minutes for Wall, replacing all minutes from Isaiah Thomas, Chris Chiozza, Justin Robinson, Shabazz Napier and Jerian Grant, and some from Ish Smith.
The result: +3.0 wins. This may seem small, but I assure you it is not. It’s a 12% difference in wins and a change of 3.4 wins over a full 82-game schedule. It would have left the Wizards with a 28-44 record and out of the playoffs, but it would still be a significant improvement, especially with a roster so young and inexperienced.
The next scenario I ran got a little more hypothetical. As mentioned above, Beal missed 17 games, including the entire bubble. Davis Bertans skipped the bubble as well. I doubt either guy makes sits the last eight games with the playoffs on the line. And, if I’m assuming Wall is healthy enough to play at an All-NBA level, it also seemed reasonable to assume he’s healthy enough to play more games as well. So, I kept the match with Beal’s minutes. I also bumped up Bertans’ minutes.
Those assumptions add another 2.1 expected wins, according to my forecasting model. That would push the Wizards record to 30-42 — still well below .500, but within five games of the eighth place Orlando Magic. In other words, having basically the same roster plus Wall would have had the Wizards in the play-in games for a first round matchup with the Bucks.
Finally, I ran The Wall Effect scenario. While there isn’t much empirical reason to do so, I ran my forecast model with the assumption that Wall makes his teammates 10% better. That would add another 2.4 wins to the pile, which would have brought the team to 32-33 wins — a virtual tie with the Magic.
Under this scenario, Wall would have helped boost the Wizards win total by 8.5 over an 82-game schedule.
It’s fair to say that even with these assumptions, the Wizards aren’t close to being a significant threat in the East — at least with the versions of the players they had on this year’s roster. One thing about having so many kids is that players tend to make their biggest improvements when they’re young.
If Wall comes back as All-NBA level producer, if they’re able to re-sign Bertans, if they’re able to use their cap exceptions to sign productive free agents, if Tommy Sheppard can make trades that add talent, and if the youngsters they bring back work hard and get better, the Wizards could be fun and interesting next season.